Thursday, 18 December 2014

Of bulls and doves

The Safari was reading about how well Bitterns have beendoing recently, recovering from their late 90’s low point of just 11 booming males in the country. We were reminded about a conference we attended in 2004 about how the Bittern’s fortunes were to be reversed; indeed some earlier work had already borne fruit as there were over 40 by the time of the conference.
Here’s a copy of the press release about Bitterns and the nature reserve we wrote for the local paper on our return from Norfolk, discovered lurking in the archives, dated June 2004

The Return of the Bog Bull
Bitterns or Bog Bulls as they were known as in the Norfolk Broads are currently the subject of a massive Species Recovery Action Plan. Money from the EU Life Fund is helping to research the habitat requirements of Bitterns and then to design new habitats such as the new work at Martin Mere WWT or rework existing habitats as is being done at Leighton Moss. Similar schemes are underway in other EU countries.

I was invited to the RSPB conference in Norfolk as a result of our large numbers of wintering Bitterns. The experts have discovered that bitterns need a lot of reed/water interface in which to feed. Their favourite food is fish. Rudd and Eels are the two species that are most likely to be found in the same place as bitterns, and so feature greatly in the Bitterns diet. Other fish prefer more open or deeper water where Bitterns cannot get at them.

At Marton Mere we have a large population of both these species. Both Rudd and Eels penetrate into the margins of the reedbeds to avoid predators such as pike and perch, but then become vulnerable to Bitterns. The more reed/water interface there is then the greater the area for Bitterns to fish in. If you look at the margins of our reedbed you will see that it is not straight but has lots of bays of varying sizes as well as the channel behind the island which was constructed with bitterns in mind.

For breeding purposes Bitterns usually require an extensive area of reed with walking access to their feeding grounds. It seems that they prefer stands of pure reed, actively avoiding areas with terrestrial plants such as willowherbs and nettles. Bitterns like to nest in a reedbed with some water but the depth is not a critical factor.

The population in the UK is increasing quite rapidly with 45 ‘boomers’ in 2003. This growth is more than would be expected from just home grown young and is a result of continental young not being able to find suitable habitat nearer home.

Will Bitterns ever breed again at Marton Mere? That’s the $64,000 question. I think it is quite possible! As the UK population increases ‘spare’ birds will be forced to choose more ‘marginal’ or smaller than ideal habitats. In the meantime the eastern end of the mere is likely to develop into a reedbed over the next decade or so, subject to Management Committee and English Nature approval. East of a line between the Fylde Bird Club Hide and the Container Hide the water is only a few feet deep and there are deeper areas and channels within it, perfect for Bitterns. If the conditions are right in 10-20 years time then breeding bitterns are a distinct possibility!

It’s interesting that our last line stated that we hoped to see breeding Bitterns at the nature reserve within 10 - 20 years. The first 10 of those years are up and we can quite categorically say that it hasn’t happened, we did the suggested reedbed works, we know there are good populations of fish in the mere, especially Eels and yet in recent years even wintering Bitterns are harder to find than they were several years ago. We remember very excitedly counting no fewer than eight on show one frosty evening. Where are they now? Why don’t they come? Are the winters so much more milder that they aren’t venturing this far west, although one was found in the scrattiest little reedbed not far away a few weeks ago. Could it be that all the habitat work to increase the area of inland reedbeds has paid off and Bitterns arriving from the continent are bunking down in these in high densities and not being spread far wide and thinly anymore? We’ve not seen a Bittern yet this year and our chances of finding one at the nature reserve in the next 12 days are somewhat slim to remote.
However, help may be at hand. The nature reserve has been awarded a Heritage Lottery Grant of over £300,000 and part of that is to do some more limited reedbed enhancements, cutting channels, increasing the total length of the margins and dredging some of the areas that areas drying to allow fish to get back into the reedbed.
There’s lots of other works going to be happening too, the island is to be remodelled to improve the scrape areas for waders and waterfowl and the top of the island is to be tilled smooth to create a better habitat for breeding waders such as Oystercatchers, Lapwings and perhaps either Little Ringed Plovers or ‘ordinary’ Ringed Plovers – you can always hope!
A Sand Martin nesting colony will also be constructed.
Work has already started on a new and enlarged visitor centre/classroom with two staff to manage and promote the project and engage all manner of volunteers to make what is already one of the best small nature reserves in the north of England even better – exciting times.
Here's one from the archives, hopefully there'll be a sight like this sometime this winter

MA tells us that Bitterns and Red Kites are doing well and the reasons for that have been relatively ‘easy’ to achieve he goes on to say about the opposite fortunes of two once much more common and widespread species, Grey Partridges and Turtle Doves. The former used to be quite regularly seen or heard at the Nature Reserve but have sadly vanished in recent years like in so many other areas. Looking at the habitat out in the fields to the east it doesn’t look that much different but  not only have the Grey Partridges disappeared so have the Brown Hares, the huge winter flocks of Lapwings sometimes bringing with them numbers of Golden Plovers no longer feed on those apparently the same fields; something must be different. Disturbance from dog walkers is much more frequent now despite there being no public access, but when did that ever stop dog walkers? Maybe the changes in crop rotation/composition is to blame, different pesticides may have different effects on the soil invertebrates or the fact that the machinery is larger so the soil more compressed...could well be a combination of a number of these factors or nothing to do with any of them. Poorly maintained hedgerows over flailed and gappy at the base certainly won’t help the Grey Partridges.
The Turtle Doves are another story, they’ve never been common in this part of the world and we’re still to see one in Lancashire missing the opportunity to twitch the last two or three that have turned up in our part of the county.
As far as we're aware the last one seen at the nature reserve was in April 2001 the same year that the last breeding was recorded in the county; over on the South Side at a small reserve we did occasional conservation work at in the early 80s. In December 2003 on may have over-wintered locally being seen for a few days coming to food with about 80 Collared Doves less than a mile from the nature reserve.
We can’t even remember that last one we saw in Britain, possibly at the west Norfolk/Wash Montague’s Harrier site about 15 years ago, we’ve certainly not seen one since we started this blog in 2008.
With all the habitat loss and idiot ‘hunters’ killing them in Spring on their migration north we wonder if we’ll ever see one in Lancashire.
Today we only managed a short lunchtime and we found a large number of Knot mixed in with the Oystercatchers, a count gave us 131 of them with at least half as many again further down to the south. A few Sanderlings and the odd Dunlin were there too.
We tried a bit of barely successful phone-scoping in the exceptionally gloomy conditions.
Scope looks like it could do with  clean too
The gulls continue to swarm up and down the prom, today there were more Black Headed Gulls but nothing of any note out on the beach.
Just phone - no scope
 After work we had just enough daylight to nip round to the nearby farmland feeding station where two Lesser Canada Geese have been seen along with a Barnacle Goose amongst the several thousand Pink Footed Geese in the field. There was barely enough light left  but we gave as much of the flock as we could see a good look through but in vain - the large part of the flock was hidden in dead ground unfortunately...dohhh.
Where to next? Last day on Patch 2 for a while tomorrow.
In the meantime let us know who's lurking in the gloom in your outback.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Good look at more gulls

The Safari enjoyed a good twenty minutes on Patch 2 this morning. Again the tide was not far off the wall and again the gulls were very numerous lined up along the water's edge waiting for what the waves washed up, looked like mostly worms of some description but not Lugworms.
A good look through them revealed nothing out of the ordinary, not gulls anyway but there were about 500 Dunlin and 30 odd Knot.
Lunchtime came around and we got to have another look. The tide was well down now and the gulls very spread out and mostly distant. The light wasn't good for distant gulling. But the runnel at the bottom of the wall held nearly 50 Redshanks and a Knot. The Knot was working it's way closer so we snuck down to the bottom of the steps in font of it and waited phone in hand hoping for a good pic. It got closer still and our hopes were up. Then the worst happened a flipping dog walker appeared from the next steps along only yards from it and you've guessed it - it flushed miles down the beach! That did make us look at other parts of the beach and we found a few Sanderlings and a couple of Ringed Plovers.
Overhead there was a continuous stream of gulls heading north, wave after wave of them, thousands; most were Herring Gulls but there were smaller ones mixed in now and then.
Got to be a good one somewhere even if it something like this possible/probable hybrid from the Southside, those 'intermedius' Lesser Black Backs look smart too.
Later in the afternoon we had a meeting at the zoo to discuss some native wildlife events they want to get involved with in the New Year and a some 'spare corners' where native species can be encouraged and advertised to the visitors.
The Iberian Wolves looked in peak condition, beautiful animals with piercing golden yellow eyes, they don't howl though.
The Orang Utans were ready to go to bed so weren't wazzing around their brand new quarters which have lots more room and climbing activities to explore. On we went to the have a look at the two Siberian Tiger cubs. They're only a few moths old and already twice the size of Frank! What beauties, we'd have taken one back to Base Camp in an instant but they're a bit big for a small semi in the burbs...and then they'd grow - Dad was having his tea on the top of the climbing frame - huge!!! Must be well over 450 pounds, 30 stones!
A quick (Asian Short Clawed) Otter feed had a Heron in attendance on the look out for a freeby or two, which it got.

That's not how you spell Heron!

A very pleasant end to a good day's safari-ing.
Where to next? Hopefully there'll be a decent gull or two to find on Patch 2 tomorrow.
In the meantime let us know who's been creeping closer in your outback.

Monday, 15 December 2014

More news from South Wales

The Safari was only able to get out onto Patch 2 for a few short minutes this morning. The tide hadn't long left the wall and was dropping rapidly leaving a strandline of shells in its wake. There were more gulls down there than we've seen for a long time, most were lined up no more than three or four deep right in the first few inches of water and they seemed to be after small fish. They were mostly Herring, Black Headed and Common Gulls in that order with a few Great Black Backs and a handful of Lesser Black Backs thrown in. Try as we might we couldn't find any odd ones out. To the south there were thousands more but the light and distance were against us. To the north there were fewer but the light was better and we picked out a large 'argentatus' Herring Gull, a dark backed ugly looking brute with more white than black in the primaries.
A few of the many
We ended up spending so much time looking at the gulls we didn't have time for a scan of the sea.
At lunchtime there was no time for another look, real work took precident so we had no more news for you.
And then mid-afternoon we got a txt from our Extreme Photographer saying he'd emailed a few photos through. We had a rough idea of what might be coming.
A week or so ago he phoned saying he'd had a bit of an Otter experience until a numpty dog walker came along and flushed it just as it was getting really close and hadn't got wind of him secreted in the undergrowth.
At another site he's found a bit of a breakwater which he can hide behind waiting for the waders on the beach to come to him, like this Turnstone.
So a very big thanks to him for filling up the blog with some quality on an otherwise dull day.
Where to next? More Patch 2 tomorrow and hopefully we'll have a better look at those gulls, assuming they hang around.
In the meantime let us know who's involved with a feeding frenzy in your outback.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Certainly not Mediterranean today

The Safari picked up BD just before lunchtime and we headed off northwards over the river. We had a bit of an errand to sort out that 'needed' us to go to a birding hotspot - oh dear what a pity!
On the way we bypassed all the other birdy areas apart from an 'easy' Little Owl location. Well sometimes it's easy, today was cold wet and windy so not unexpectedly there was no owl so sadly no lifer for B. Disappointing, but not to worry there was a good chance of other lifers before too long. In some of the roadside fields there were large numbers of Black Headed Gulls and some fields simply oozed Curlews, not seen some many for a good few years, the number of Little Egrets round these parts is getting silly, one field had seven!
Our chore involved a brief visit to a pub, no time for drinking even though it did have Bowland Brewery's Hen Harrier on tap (and quality ciders too) we were sussing it for a visit with Wifey soon. The pub grounds and nearby farm held the largest congregation of Redwings we've seen this winter.
Visit done time for birding. We hit the car park at the estuary and went to the picnic benches which offer the first view of the river and marshes. Somewhere out there there is a Snow Goose so we scanned the marshes on the far side for white dots among the darker dots of Pink Footed Geese. All the white dots we saw were swans and there were no geese to be seen. We scanned far and wide until B said "there's a white thing with the Cormorants, is that a goose?" Spinning the scope round we confirmed his suspicions there was the Snow Goose (179) on edge of the mud bank with its feet in the river having a right old preen.
Thanks to BD for the steal of the pic - 2000mm handheld in the dark!
There wasn't much else along this stretch of the river, a few Lapwings, a Great Black Backed Gull and some Dunlins.
We had a look along the old railway track and saw a flock of Chaffinches drop in to a Hawthorn bush right over Frank's head from on high before continuing southwards at lower level. A few Wigeon were at the end of the creeks and under the bridge there were a couple of Redshanks and a dead immature swan as well as the ubiquitous Little Egret.
Moving round to the freshwater pool we approached with care but the Kingfisher wasn't on the concrete block on the other side of the screen. Little Grebes were numerous here with seven being counted. They were regularly popping up with small fish, their strike rate was quite impressive.
Back in the creeks on the other side road there were few waders, just Redshanks and a few Curlews,
but loads of ducks, Mallards, Teal and Wigeon.
He's got his pom-pom puffed up!
A journey round the lanes had us passing a large herd of Mute Swans in the fields and more Black Headed Gulls. We stopped at the old abandoned farmhouse but again the weather was against us for seeing the Little Owl that resides there.
The short winter day was now working against us and it was time to move on to see if we could find a Mediterranean Gull in the roost at the Twite site. A Jay squabbled with a Magpie in a roadside garden, a little unusual here we thought but we could be wrong. A cracking male Pheasant was far enough onto the grass verge not to become roadkill, not so the dithering female half a mile further on, she too made cover before going under the wheels as is the fate of so many thousands of others who's death then gets blamed on Buzzards, Pine Martens, Stoats, Weasels and any other predator you care to mention.
The wind on the embankment was quite strong and quite cool making view not as comfortable as it might have been.
The gull roost was disappointingly small but there was time for all the field-feeders to come in. No Twite today, the only small bird was the usual Robin the hops around the rocks of the sea defences.
Three Bar Tailed Godwits roosted on one leg (each, not between them!) and we wondered how they didn't get blown about, or even over, by the wind as we were being buffeted quite badly.
Also out on the windswept mudflats were plenty of Dunlins, Lapwings and the corvid murmuration that seems to be a regular occurrence here. A flock of Golden Plovers flew past but landed too far down the beach to be easily viewable against the lowering light. Shelducks wandered about but still no more gulls appeared as the light started to fail.
Time to call it a day without poor B finding his first Med Gull, he'll get one soon rather than later we hope.
Where to next? Something good on Patch 2 would be nice, should be able to get two looks at it tomorrow.
In the meantime let us know what's become ubiquitous in your outback

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Devastation at Base Camp

The Safari hasn't been able to get out much of late even with a day off midweek we've been confined to barracks by a combination of chores and weather. 
Yesterday we tried to get on the beach to look for some broken off chunks of Honeycomb Worm after the storm for our marine biologist friend DB but didn't have our wellies with us so weren't able to cross the deep pool at the bottom of the slipway.
At lunchtime we had to take a walk up to the shops instead of a Patch 2 watch. Near the back gate of the work's garden we saw that some kindly soul had put up a couple of feeders.
We should get a tub of  fat balls for the holiday season
A couple of elderly people on wheelchairs stopped for a few minutes to watch the House Sparrow action, there were loads of them - perhaps as many as 30, and being in their chariots and not 'looking like' humans they were able to get really close to them. A small number of Greenfinches were there too, favouring the peanuts rather than the still quite plentiful Rosehips.
We wandered up and everything flew off while we were still several yards away.
There was loads of House Sparrows on these twigs - honest!
We weren't in a terrible rush to get to the shops and stood and waited for the sparrows to return. They didn't but a pair of Blackbirds appeared from the depths of the bush and poked about beneath the feeder; they were quite confiding particularly the male. The pic is taken on the phone without any zoom.

The wind was fierce as we reached the top of the railway bridge on the way back, still strong, but thankfully not the horrendous gale of the day before, and now decidedly chilly, the suddeness of it when we reached the brow made us almost stop but that gave us the opportunity to witness a Sparrowhawk on a really fast hunt dive through the bushes along the side of the track, make an impossibly sharp right-hand(wing?) turn and ross the road in front of us before ducking and weaving still at breakneck speed  through the gaps between the houses on the other side and all done with hardly a wing-beat just using the air currents - very impressive!
It was dark when we got back to Base Camp but as we parked up the Land Rover we could see something was missing or we couldn't see something that should have been there.
Sadly our neighbours have felled the large Sycamore tree at the bottom of the garden. This was the last landscape tree within a hundred yards or so of Base Camp and was the 'target tree' for our avian visitors, they bunked in there to get a good look if any predators were lurking before dropping down on to our feeders. 
We've not had much time for looking out of the window today but when we have we haven't seen a so much as a feather in the garden. Not only that it protected our rather flimsy and not very well rooted Silver Birch so that might now need a bit of surgery to reduce the weight at the top - more destruction for the local wildlife to contend with. 
Something big's missing
Are there any good points? Very limited really but we will have a wider view of the sky for vis migging in the autumn, the light from the moth trap might travel a bit further (although the habitat for some moth species has now disappeared) and we do get an unimpeded view of the ledges on the tower where the Peregrine used to sit - no-one's seen it up there for months - - not a good sign.
Perhaps there should be a rule that says anyone removing a tree should pay to have 10 new ones planted withing a mile of where the original was lost from.
So a pretty sad day and for what? Wish we had more acreage to plant more trees in...anyone got a 40,000 acre country estate they'd like to donate?
In a lighter mood we did see a locally rare bird when we were on our way to the post office. A Jay flew over the road and had very possibly just flown over CR's garden - he wasn't in having not long since offered us a lift to the Shore Lark.
Where to next? Should be able to get out and about on safari to some northern areas tomorrow.
In the meantime let us know who's been destroying the habitat in your outback.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Oh no a weather bomb’s coming – we’re all going to die!!!

As we arrived at work there was a bit of a sunrise beginning to happen but we had no chance of an early visit and only the briefest of visits to the seawall at lunchtime and that wasn’t overly productive. 

The tide was just about at its peak and if the cold brisk wind had had any west in it rather than being just about due south the waves would have been crashing over.

As anticipated there wasn’t too much to be seen and anything moving low over the water was mostly hidden in the troughs. Almost everything we did see was heading south, according to the Daily Fail there’s a bit of weather coming so they were probably moving to avoid the worst of what that’s going to throw at  us 

Err; it’s winter and Scotland is renowned for a bit of snowy and windy weather at this time of year – where’s the news in that? Anyone would think it’s Armageddon! The Shetlanders might think it windy enough to hang their laundry out!

 So what were the ‘they’ that were in escape mode? Nothing more than a few handfuls of Common Scoters although more, in small (as far as we could tell) flocks were seen briefly bobbing on the waves at various points of the compass, a couple of Great Black Backed Gulls cruised by in the middle distance, a bit of a weather bomb wasn’t going to phase them – they laugh in the face of weather bombs, even tougher with more front than Katie Price was the Cormorant heading straight out to sea an d into the worst of the oncoming weather.
Over to the south west towards Wales it was clear and we could see the foothills of the Snowdon Massif but out the way the Cormorant was going was a mass of threatening deep black cloud touching the sea well before the ‘normal’ horizon.

A Common Gull careened past fairly close in and that was it, our frozen fingers told us lunchtime was over! Time to abandon the fingerless gloves for some a little more substantial we think.

Winds’s picking up again now, better batten down the hatches, put the tin hat on and head for the bunker...or maybe not, might be something good out there tomorrow!

Where to next? Might even get an early Patch 2 look tomorrow.

In the meantime let us know who’s bravely flying the wrong way in your outback.